Pretty Woman — the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster and now the glitzy, pop-scored Broadway spectacle — is a story of mutual transformation. In this sentimental and consumerist riff on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, a controlling, slightly phobic billionaire (Richard Gere in the film) enters into a business arrangement with a winsome prostitute he picks up (or rather, who picks him up) on Hollywood Boulevard. (Hold the Trump jokes, please.) The hooker role was played with star-making vivacity onscreen by a young Julia Roberts, she of the mile-wide smile and spontaneous guffaw. By the end of the flick, after a week of lovemaking, soul baring, fighting, and forgiveness, they’ve fallen hard, having taught each other about intimacy, trust, and the value of designer dresses. She has acquired fashionable armor, while his has melted.
The book of this adaptation, by the late, sorta-great Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, doesn’t stray from Lawton’s original screenplay. Alas, that’s the transformation I dearly wish had occurred: Clever playwright and songwriters turn a male fantasy about money and ego into something more challenging and resonant for today’s audiences. Less #IGotMine and more #MeToo. But scan the creative team in Pretty Woman’s program, and you have to go far down to hit a woman’s name: Fiona Mifsud, makeup designer. Fiona does a fine job, but I would have loved to see more women higher up. Instead, we get sixteen tunes by Eighties MTV cutie Bryan Adams and his longtime writing partner, Jim Vallance; a half-dozen male designers; and, in the director-choreographer chair, Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde), whose name is synonymous with slick, audience-friendly camp.
OK, forget the sausage-party optics for a moment and let’s examine the production itself. It’s a typical Jerry Mitchell joint: all bright, sliding surfaces (L.A.–tacky sets by David Rockwell) and colorful chorus folk in constant motion. The highly likable Andy Karl, lately of Groundhog Day, plays Edward, yet another damaged male in need of healing, preferably from the fairer sex. As damsel-savior Vivian, Samantha Barks dutifully pours herself into a series of attractive dresses (by Gregg Barnes) modeled after the ones in the movie, and plies her strong pop soprano. Orfeh makes what meal she can from her leftover of a role, Vivian’s co–sex worker Kit. Hardworking and versatile Eric Anderson, playing what I think is a Magical Hobo, introduces the characters, meanders spiritedly around the stage, and then resolves himself as a starchy but kindhearted hotel manager. Jason Danieley has the thankless role of Edward’s sleazy lawyer, who’s helping in a hostile takeover of a ship-building company.
To be sure, a plausible, even affecting romantic comedy could be coaxed from this premise. The movie benefited enormously from the fire-and-ice chemistry between Roberts and Gere, and its shopaholic, fairy-tale humbug went down fairly easily as a belated, final gasp of the Eighties. In movies, you can get away with shorthand characterization and nicely framed pillow talk to simulate depth and passion, but onstage, we need more cues, more brushstrokes. By keeping the story in the same time frame, refusing to update it or introduce a meaningful female perspective, the creative team ensures that Pretty Woman remains a well-mannered mannequin, swaddled in nearly thirty-year-old fashion.
A fresh and witty musical approach might have countered this embalming tendency. But the problem with the Adams-Vallance score is how slenderly it connects to characters and situations. “Anywhere but Here” is Vivian’s wishful-washy “I Want” number. In “Something About Her,” Edward muses, vaguely: “There’s something about her/That I’ve never seen before/There’s something about her/I don’t know what it is/But I know that I need more.” Later, in the perversely undramatic Act I finale, Edward and Vivian go shopping, and he showers her with praise: “And you’re beautiful/You’ve got style and grace/There’s something about your smile that says/You’re on your way.” Febreze called; they want their jingle back.
Other tracks are equally uninspired, as telegraphed by their bromidic titles: “Never Give Up on a Dream,” “On a Night Like Tonight,” “Don’t Forget to Dance,” “I Can’t Go Back.” The sonic nadir comes when Edward takes Vivian to the opera and she swoons over La Traviata (also about a courtesan); if, in the throes of dengue fever, you ever wanted to know what a Verdi–Bryan Adams mash-up sounds like, here’s your chance. I can’t emphasize how mediocre these airbrushed ditties are, cranked out by a pair of Canadians who spent decades simulating teen longing for three-minute bursts. It’s Velveeta Rock, and, crammed into a Broadway format, it doesn’t add up to a musical so much as a play in which characters periodically break into Bryan Adams’s back catalog. When people sing in a show, they’re supposed to get more interesting, not less.
And so, the 2018–19 season has barely begun, but we already have a front-runner for Most Unnecessary Musical. Apparently, it’s doing strong box office, so Pavlovian name recognition is doing its thing. The theater is a place where you pay money to be seduced and lied to, but it’s not unreasonable to expect more. Vapid, musically dead, and dramatically flat, Pretty Woman exists for no other reason than to dig cash out of tourist pockets.